Piano teacher Audrey De Silva's lifelong dream has been to play in an orchestra. At age 55, it will finally be fulfilled. On Friday, she will be among the 92 people performing in the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra (MFO) at the Sing50 concert.She will be playing the cello, an instrument she started learning just five years ago.
"I started to learn the cello because I had always told myself that one day I was going to play in an orchestra. At age 50, it was now or never," says Ms De Silva, who has completed the Grade 8 cello examinations.
Her cello intructor Brandon Voo is also her mentor in the MFO Mentorship Programme for Sing50. Under the programme, each mentee is guided by an orchestra professional musician. Through an open audition call, 26 mentees were picked from 130 applicants, with Ms De Silva the oldest among them. But age has not dampened her zest and vigour in learning something new. Her determination to master the cello pushed her to take up pilates in order to improve her coordination and better manage the instrument's weight.
She says: "When I started on the cello, the physical limitations of my age made it difficult for my body to handle all the stress that playing this instrument took. I had no upper body strength and had to do pilates to straighten it out. After three years of learning, I became much better at it."
Mr Voo, 36, has only praises to sing of his student, saying: "Audrey is very conscientious and hardworking. I was impressed by how interested she was in the instrument and how she set her goals for herself. For Sing50, she made sure she practised her parts well."
Still, Ms De Silva admits to being "a wreck" at the Sing50 auditions. "I was very nervous. I really wanted to get in, but when I walked in, I saw that everybody was half my age and I felt like a grandma.
"When I got the results, I was so relieved and did somersaults in my head," says Ms De Silva, whose husband and two adult daughters will be attending the concert.
Six-year-old Jacob Cheng, the youngest mentee, is unfazed by the prospect of playing the violin in front of 45,000 people at the National Stadium.
"I'm not really nervous because I'm not performing alone. I've performed solo many times and this is together with so many others in the orchestra," he says.
He picked up the violin at age three and has won awards in several classical music festivals in the last two years. Last year, he won the Gold Award - Violin Solo at the Singapore Performers' Festival and the second prize in the Age Six To Eight Category at the Malaysian Youth Music Festival. He also won the Gold Award and Top 10 Performer Award in the Age Eight And Under Category at the Ars Nova Festival Singapore. Sing50 presents a challenging eye-opener for the Primary 1 pupil at Catholic High School, who is the youngest of four children born to a property valuer and a housewife.
"I've had to learn the scores of many big pieces and learn to play together with others. I've not played with such a big orchestra before and this requires me to learn fast, how to coordinate with everyone and think on the spot," he says.
He is especially grateful to his mentor in the orchestra, violinist Andrea Lin, for looking out for him during rehearsals. "She taught me how to handle certain parts so that I can improve the way I play the pieces. She also reminds me to look at the conductor by drawing 'spectacle' images on my score," he says.
Ms Lin, 23, says: "I find Jacob very talented, with regards to his musicality and technicality. He is playing repertoires of levels beyond his age."
The more than 1,200 singers and instrumentalists on stage for the grand finale, comprising the 92-strong orchestra, 50 pianists, 1,000-strong choir and artists, represent the largest number of musicians Professor Chan Tze Law has conducted. He notes that the Sing50 concert will mark the first time many mentees and pianists will be playing with a full orchestra. Renowned Chinese pianist Lang Lang, accompanied by the orchestra, will be leading the 50 pianists in Concerto In Three Movements, an original composition written by composer Kelly Tang.
The orchestra will also be accompanying Mandopop superstar Stefanie Sun during her segment, where she will sing four of her hits.
Says Prof Chan, 51, an associate director of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music at the National University of Singapore and also the music director of the orchestra: "The problem we have to overcome has to do with getting so many people to perform together in time. The challenge is really about being able to follow the beat and playing with the orchestra. It was difficult for most of the children to follow at the beginning as they had obviously less experience playing together."
After attending separate sectional rehearsals, the orchestra and pianists came together for their first combined rehearsal on July 26. They were joined by some of the artists, such as Sun. As the big day approaches, excitement is mounting for the musicians.
Jacob says: "I look forward to this week's rehearsals. It should be even more exciting with all the stars appearing - no, not in the sky - but at the Stadium."